Many people tend to think of massive events when it comes to school shootings, but Columbus Police Chief Charles Sherer brought harrowing statistics to light this week during a meeting of community leaders.
In 2023 alone, the chief noted, there have so far been seven school shootings that resulted in injury or death. The police chief cited such incidents in Newport News, Virginia (a 6-year-old boy shot and injured a teacher inside a classroom); Apopka, Florida (a teenager was shot and injured in a parking lot after a basketball game); Oak Park, Michigan (a teenager was shot and injured after a basketball game); and Del, City, Oklahoma (one person was shot and injured just after a school basketball game had concluded. Police say multiple shots were fired inside the field house and also in the school parking lot.).
Closer to home, St. Paul, Minnesota (a female school staff member suffered a graze injury during a fight between two groups of teenagers); and Des Moines, Iowa (two students were killed and an adult male was injured at an alternative educational program affiliated with the Des Moines school district.)
As those in attendance looked at the chief, he cited the latest school shooting in America that occurred on Feb. 15th in Baltimore (A 15-year-old girl was shot and injured outside the school where an after-school activity was taking place).
There have been 151 such shootings since 2018, according to Education Week. That same entity found that there were 51 school shootings with injuries or deaths last year, the most in a single year since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018.
There were 35 in 2021, 10 in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018, according to Education Week.
The statistics the police chief shared were sobering, though a firm reminder of why leaders from the City of Columbus, including the police and fire departments; Columbus Public Schools; Platte County Emergency Management, the Platte County Sheriff’s Office and Nebraska State Patrol came together on Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the Columbus Fire Department headquarters.
It was the first of multiple “S.W.O.T. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats)" modules that will culminate in March 2024 with a live shooter exercise at Columbus High School so that all entities, as well as Columbus Community Hospital, can coordinate and be prepared in the event of a real live shooter emergency of any kind.
“You just don’t know … we’re seeing a shift now where something happened last night, and so someone decides to take care of it the next day. Those are the things where you have to remember to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That’s what this is about,” CPS Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz said toward the session’s conclusion.
Attendees, which included representatives from CPS elementary, middle and high schools; district administration, Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley, Sherer, Fire Chief Ryan Gray, Columbus Police Capt. Doug Molczyk, Columbus Police Capt. Todd Thalken, Assistant Fire Chief Nathan Jones, Joint Communications Center Communications Director Rachel Pensick and Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff, spent nearly three hours talking over scenarios and procedures.
“We’ve done several of these community exercises, and the cooperation and communication are always the same. We have great relationships with all the players in this room,” Molczyk said. “This is just a great way to really understand everyone’s job function so we can better work together.”
Participants broke into small groups to discuss their entity’s procedures if ever such a scenario played out, then shared ideas as a collective to help each entity understand its role in such case, how information will be communicated to the public and more.
Platte County Emergency Manager Tim Hofbauer said he always appreciates when people from various local entities can come together to discuss important topics and figure out how they can all work together for the betterment of the community.
The local live shooter exercises have been done at Central Community College-Columbus the last few times. But, Molczyk said, organizers decided to move it to a CPS campus to involve the largest public school district in Columbus and do it in one of the busier areas in town.
The mayor was encouraged by the dialogue among the different parties in attendance.
“I think it went very well. It’s all an informative session to try to get everyone on the same page on what to do for something hopefully not necessary, but potential future incidents,” Bulkley said. “It’s a learning experience. That’s what’s going on here.”
Practice was put to the test on Wednesday during the session when CPS officials notified Columbus Police officers of a report regarding a student possibly having a weapon at Columbus Middle School. A student made an initial report to a teacher about a fellow student having the potential weapon, according to Molczyk, and Columbus Police in partnership with Columbus Middle School administration investigated.
Officers and school staff at the SW.O.T. session left swiftly to investigate while CPS administration sent out texts and voicemails alerting CPS parents that the school was put in a “Hold In Place” (students locked in classrooms, no one in halls, and no one encouraged to come to CMS until the all clear is received). No weapon was ultimately found, but the situation served as a reminder as to why the session was important.
Loeffelholz praised CPS staff and Columbus Police for their efforts regarding the incident, adding his appreciation to everyone who attended the meeting on Wednesday.
“I thought it went really well because it validates what we do,” the superintendent said. “There are probably things we can get better at, but this helps us identify those things we can get better at.”